Innovation Junkies Podcast

Paul LeBlanc on How Innovation Leads to Growth in Higher Education

Paul LeBlanc, President of SNHU and author of Students First: Access, Equity, and Opportunity in Higher Education, joins the Jeffs to discuss how innovation led to significant growth at SNHU. Topics Include: providing students with social mobility and economic opportunity, why Innovation and Leadership are Inseparable for universities, changes that traditional academic leaders should consider.

Paul LeBlanc:
We ask higher education to do many jobs, and we need to honor and respect those because they are important. But at any given time, I would argue higher education typically has a primary job. And the primary job for American higher ed right now is to solve for massive changes in workforce.

Jeff Standridge (Intro):
This is Jeff Standridge, and this is The Innovation Junkies podcast. If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategies, and generate sustained results for your organization, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome to The Innovation Junkies podcast.

Jeff Standridge:

Hey, guys, Jeff Standridge here. Welcome to another episode of The Innovation Junkies podcast. How we doing, Jeff?

Jeff Amerine:
Oh, doing real well. And I’m super excited to hear from our guest today. Who do we have coming on, Jeff?

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, so we have Dr. Paul LeBlanc president of Southern New Hampshire University. If you haven’t seen Southern New Hampshire University and their ads and the growth that they’ve experienced over the last several years, last 18 years under Paul’s direction, they’ve grown from 2,800 students to 170,000 learners, and they’re the largest nonprofit university in the country.
We’re going to learn a lot about Paul, what he’s done. He actually has a new book out called Students First: Access, Equity, and Opportunity in Higher Education, that’s published by the Harvard Education Press. We’re going to learn about that as well. Paul, Dr. LeBlanc, great to have you with us today.

Paul LeBlanc:
So thank you for having me, and please call me Paul. It’s a pleasure to be with you both.

Jeff Standridge:
Fantastic, fantastic

Jeff Amerine:
Yeah, thank you so much for coming on. And given that we’ve all had this experience of being in front of students and teaching at various different levels, we’d like to start by understanding what was your most memorable experience in the classroom?

Paul LeBlanc:
It was very early days of technology, which will make me sound ancient. But for those of you who remember, in the ’90s, multimedia was the new thing. And there was Apple Note Cards, and the idea of that you could have embedded links and you could link from a text to a video to music, et cetera.
And I was teaching a literature class, and I was playing with something called IBM Tool Book, and it was their version of Apple’s Note Cards. And I had a student who, he was not a great student. He was not very interested in Shakespeare. We were teaching Henry V. But when I gave him this environment in which to work, and I asked him a question, I said, “How did the French lose the Battle of Agincourt?” He then went out and assembled video clips from the great Kenneth Branagh movie and animations and battlefield maps and text.
And he was so fired up about the technology and what enabled him to communicate in a new way that he just blew me away. And I realized there was something very powerful when you could move students into that sort of innovation-enabled learning environment.
And it was funny. We had Houghton Mifflin Publishing sent a group of editors because everyone was grappling, all the publishing companies, what are we supposed to do with this new media? We’re book guys. And I had him present to them, and for them, it was an aha moment like, okay, books alone will not cut it. Of course, today, we live in a video and sound-dominated world, but that was a really big aha moment.

Jeff Standridge:
Wow. That’s awesome. That’s very good.

Jeff Amerine:
Jeff, what about you?

Jeff Standridge:
So I consider myself a recovering academic, and as a result of that, I use pretty non-traditional ways to engage and assess my students. I actually teach and assess using a learning contract where I teach entrepreneurial finance and innovation leadership at the University of Central Arkansas. And it’s graduate, one course is graduate only, one course is upper-level senior students and upper-level undergraduates and MBA students.
And so, I generally, in my syllabus, I put forth a draft contract for the grades of A, B, and C with some minimum expectations. And then, I give them two weeks to renegotiate that contract individually with me based upon what would result in the best learning experience.
And I generally finish all of my contracts by the Friday before finals, and that’s kind of my deadline at midnight. And so, I got an email from a young struggling student who was here from Detroit. And he texted me about 11 o’clock at night on the night of the deadline, and he’s says, “Well, I guess I’m going to just see you next semester.”
And I said, I called him by name, text message, “Wait a minute. You’re not a quitter. Why would you do that? Why would you just quit?” And he goes, “Well, I’m not going to get these other two assignments done by the deadline in an hour or 40 minutes or what have you.”
And I said, “So you’re just going to quit? You’re just going to quit.” He says, “Well, I don’t know what else to do.” And I said, “Make me an offer. Propose a contract revision.” Because if you don’t meet the terms of the contract that you’ve negotiated, you don’t get the next lower grade, you get an F,” and I’d never had anybody make an F before.
And so, we went back and forth for several minutes there via text, and he didn’t know how to propose something. And I said, “I’ll tell you what,” this was the fall semester, I said, “You be in my office at 9:00 AM on January the fifth.” That was the first day back in class, “9:00 AM, January the fifth, not 9:01, not 9:05, you be in my office at 9:00. And if you’re in my office at 9:00, and you come to me with a proposal for how you think you can deliver what you said you were going to deliver at the level that you thought you could deliver it, and what you think an acceptable grade would be for the extra time that you’re going to get, then we will sit down and renegotiate your contract.”
And so, he was in my office at 8:57 on January the fifth, and we negotiated a contract for him to retain a C out of the course. He couldn’t get an A, and I told him that on the front end. And he negotiated a contract to get a C. It took him an additional week or so, and he was able. Because that was his last semester to graduate, spring was, and if he had to retake my course, he couldn’t take it again until the fall.
And so, I don’t know. It impressed upon me the fact that deadlines are arbitrary, grades don’t need to be arbitrary and capricious, that people are willing to work to do the right thing, and just was kind of a validation of the 25 years of doing contract learning, I guess.

Jeff Amerine:
No, those are great stories. I mean, it’s-

Jeff Standridge:
How about you?

Jeff Amerine:
Well, yeah, and I’ve been kind of rolling through several things. It’d be easy for me to talk to… I teach small business management, also new ventures, and I come to it as a practitioner who started nine businesses, who’s been an active early-stage investor, and spent a fair amount of time in technology commercialization in a major university, so interesting sort of perspective.
I’m really a big believer, as it relates to business, in the practical application of the knowledge. And so, about eight years ago, and I’d already been teaching three or four years in new ventures, I was asked to teach small business management.
And rather than kind of going through the classic way of lecture-oriented and here’s the book and all that I said, “Well… ” The hypothesis was what would the reaction be if we had a class where every student would have $200 invested in them, and their task would be to either form a team or work independently, but to maximize that return on that $200 investment, they could form teams up to five, so it could be up to $1,000, over a 16 week period? And what would they actually learn?
And I would take on the role as a board member and investor, and each week they would report on what their forecasted sales were, what their actual sales were, what their cash balance was, what their burn rate was, and any issues.
And the thing that was really compelling and eye-opening to me was how much they learned about the actual difficulty of getting a small business launched and the practicality of supply chain and getting products or services out and getting them delivered and working together as a team or working independently.
And, I mean, it was pretty memorable, and it’s still a format that I use today. And what they learn and what they actually launch as a result of that class, it’s been pretty memorable to see how that takes everything else they’ve learned academically with multi-disciplines and have applied it to a real business. So that’s been a good experience for sure.

Jeff Standridge:
And you still do that, right?

Jeff Amerine:
I do. Absolutely. As long as I can continue to afford it because the money comes out of my pocket.

Jeff Standridge:
That’s great.

Paul LeBlanc:
That’s great.

Jeff Standridge:
And I’ve seen some of those students and seen some of the work that they do. Jeff and I are business partners and co-hosts, but we’re separated by about two-and-a-half hours of interstate highway. And so, but I’ve seen some of those students and some of the things that they’ve created, and it’s really phenomenal.
So Paul, let’s shift the conversation and let’s talk about you and a little bit about your background maybe leading up to Southern New Hampshire University. And then, what we really want to do is dig into this exorbitant yet phenomenal growth from 2,800 to 170,000 students and the way that Southern New Hampshire University has become pretty much a prolific university in the media, in terms of marketing, and the acquiring of students, and the growth of you’ve had. And so, talk to us.

Paul LeBlanc:
Sure. So when people kind of want that story of the journey, they often are asking about, so where were you before SNHU. And I can certainly do that, that’s sort of the LinkedIn resume story. But the story that I think is more important for the work I do is really the story of my family immigrating from New Brunswick, Canada, and what was essentially kind of what some people call French Appalachia, hardscrabble farming village where the men would go off to work for weeks and months at a time because there was no local employment.
And so, at some point, opportunity arose. It’s the classic immigrant story. An uncle moved to the Boston area, and basically called home and said, “There are jobs here.” So we packed up, and we moved to the US when I was a kid. My first language was French.
My parents had eighth-grade educations, which was not uncommon for the time and the place. I have four older siblings. They all worked, my brothers in construction and my sisters as housekeepers, et cetera. So I was the first in my family to go to college, in my extended family, and the first in my neighborhood really. Certainly, among my friends, we were the first to go off to college in this very working-class neighborhood in the shadow of the big Waltham Watch factory in Waltham, Mass.
And it was an extraordinary… I mean, I get very schmaltzy about it, but I had an American dream experience, which is the access to high quality, affordable, higher education transformed the trajectory of my life, and thus the life of my daughters. My two daughters who are both now in their early 30s have lives that my parents would scarcely have imagined. And that’s because of education.
And I think so much of the work we do at SNHU, we often say, “We serve the 45% of Americans who would struggle to come up with the $400 for an unexpected car repair.” That’s who we care about. And what I worry about is that that sort of story of opportunity and transformation that was made available to me is much less in the reach of today’s immigrant kid from the Dominican Republic or from Mexico or Central America or from Africa.
And that’s what we’re really trying to do is innovate and build models that can restore the sort of the right role, I think, of higher ed as an engine of social mobility and economic opportunity. And I think when I describe my experience, I thought of higher ed, I think of higher ed then, as part of the solution to the problem of wealth inequity and the problem of social justice and more.
And today, I think for a lot of Americans, higher ed has gone from being seen as part of the solution to actually being part of the problem. It’s out of reach. It’s too expensive. It requires too much. The ROI is not certain. It leaves too many people behind. 45, 40% of those who start don’t finish. 40 million Americans who have some credit, no degree, but have debt, kind of the worst combination. So it’s an industry that I love, but it’s an industry that I think has to transform and do a better job.

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah. Well, that story resonates so much with me being a first-generation college student. And I’ve said many times that the University of Central Arkansas didn’t just transform my life, it transformed my family tree.

Paul LeBlanc:
Yeah, it’s generational-

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, I have 27 and 29-year-old daughters who are in similar situations. They’re at points in their lives at 27 and 29 that it probably took me until I was 40 or 45 to get to in terms of the economic opportunity. And so, that’s fascinating. So tell us more about the 170,000 and some of the nontraditional things that you do to educate those people and to provide them with that social mobility and economic opportunity.

Paul LeBlanc:
Sure. So one of the revelations of the book that just, you mentioned earlier, that came out in October, for me along the way was the extent to which time is an underappreciated asset that the privileged enjoy and low-income people don’t. That is everything takes longer if you’re low income, if you’re poor. If you don’t have a washer/dryer in your apartment, it takes longer to get clean clothes. If you don’t own a car, it takes longer to get groceries. If you don’t have an employer with a rich healthcare plan, it takes longer to get basic healthcare or dental care, et cetera.
And yet, we’ve built a higher ed system that’s tethered to the credit hour and to time and place. So if I work in retail, if I work in fast food, for example, I don’t only not have as much time, I may not control my time. I may not know what my schedule looks like three weeks from now. So if you commit me to being on campus on Wednesdays at four o’clock, that’s a problem.
So when we decided to start really growing our online program back when I arrived in 2003/2004, part of what we really got very committed to was untethering students from place. We couldn’t untether them from time, but we could untether them from place.
So if you think about the traditional time and place model, the student is working all day, rushing to make an evening class at five or six o’clock, not time to go home, maybe grabbing a fast food meal, eating in the parking lot before they go to class. And if they get home in time, they may or may not see their kids who may be already in bed.
Contrast that when we could go to fully online and asynchronous, so no schedule. I can come home. I can go to my daughter’s soccer game. I can have dinner with my family. I can help them with their homework, put them to bed. And now, at 9:00 or 9:30 PM, when I boot up my computer and log into SNHU’s learning portal, now I’m a student for the next two or three hours.

Jeff Standridge:
You know-

Paul LeBlanc:
So that convenience was critical to our learners and why we were able to grow so quickly for that classic online student, that 39-year-old or the 29-year-old, I should say. With 86% of them working full time, many of with kids, 18% veterans, the convenience is critical in the busy, busy lives of people who have to juggle family and work before they figure out how to fit in education, so that was the big driver of online. And then later came—

Jeff Standridge:
You just described—

Paul LeBlanc:
Sorry, go ahead.

Jeff Standridge:
You just described five years of my life of rushing from work as a young assistant professor, running, rushing to graduate school, grabbing Burger King, eating in the parking lot, getting home, my kids being in bed, and then getting them up in the morning and feeding them. And so, you just described precisely my life for at least five years. So I get it, that makes a lot of sense.

Paul LeBlanc:
Yeah. And then, we get very… Clay Christensen is a long-time friend of four decades. Clay passed away almost two years ago now. And Clay was on my board, and we would talk a lot well before he became… We met playing basketball in a gym in Cambridge, Mass. on Saturday mornings. I liked to tell him I knew him long before he was famous.
But long before his research was published, we would have long conversations about innovation, and innovation theory, and disruptive innovation, which is a phrase that he’s very much associated with. And I think we really tried to follow his playbook, and that drove us towards creating College for America, which was the first of its kind competency-based program, untethered to the credit hour.
So that we are now, we’re not only able to untether students from place, we are also able to untether them from time and allow them to go at a pace that makes more sense for them. So that’s also, I think, another critical innovation that drove our growth.
But the other piece that was really, really important from Clay’s work was his work around jobs to be done. And the idea that you have to be very hard-nosed about the job people are asking you to do for them, and then really optimize for that. And that’s what I think distinguished our online program from lots of others.
Because a lot of people who try to go online, a lot of institutions that went online, they try to take everything that they had designed for their on-campus students and kind of drop it into digital space: same policies, same thinking, same supports. It was like replicating your physical campus but in a virtual space.
And what we realized is that our physical campus was built for the needs of 18 and 19 and 20-year-olds who had a different set, they had a different job that they needed us to do for them. And that the job that our adult learners and online were asking us to do really required something different.
So just to make that concrete, if you think about our campus, both our populations want these post-secondary credentials that will open up career opportunities for them. But for the 18-year-old on our campus, they also wanted a whole bunch of other things. They wanted to live in a dorm, and they wanted to be with their peers, and they wanted to figure out who they were existentially speaking. They wanted to drink too much on Friday night sometimes. They wanted to fall in love. They wanted to be on student government. They wanted to captain the soccer team. And I would put all of that job under a general umbrella of coming-of-age.
So there’s a very important coming-of-age job that residential campuses do for young people, mostly right out of high school. When I looked at online, when I had a 28-year-old, former lieutenant who had served in Afghanistan, who now has three kids, is in a dead-end job, needs to make more money, he doesn’t have a coming-of-age job. He’s had all the coming of age he can handle. He knows what he’s about or what she’s about.
So what they want is something different. They want, “I’m super busy. I need everything to be convenient. I need all my administrative processes have to be really customer-friendly.” We don’t actually think about that very much on residential campuses. We actually, the demands on our administrative processes on most campuses is pretty light. Students are willing to put up with incongruous processes. But we try to be very, very streamlined for our students because we know they don’t have much time.
One example often cited is, and we stole this from University of Phoenix, who, they are much maligned by the not-for-profit sector, but they did some things well, and one of them was customer service. They have taught us a lot about customer service. Is that when students are transferring in, and 80% of our online students transfer from someplace else, 10 years before… They transfer in with credits, I should say, and often from more than one place. They want to know how many of those credits will count towards the completion of their degree program.
Because they have four needs, generally speaking, so when we think about… Three principal needs for our online students, one is convenience. It’s got to work in my busy life. They need a low cost, I need it at a price I can afford. I need a credential that makes sense for me, that’s going to unlock an opportunity. And then the fourth one is completion time. How quickly can you get me to the finish line? They feel urgency. So we really optimized our online for those four jobs.
So going back to my example, most schools, when they get a student coming with transfer credits or with previous credits we’ll say, “Contact our registrar. They’re going to want $10 from you. We need to see a certified transcript. As soon as all of that stuff comes in, we’ll do your transfer credit evaluation, and we’ll be back to you.”
I’m a working adult. It’s 4:30. What’s a registrar again? I got to track down their number. I’ll call them when I got home. Oh, that office has been closed. I’ll call them again tomorrow. Oh, they won’t take… They need a credit card, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Paul LeBlanc:
What we said to them, we said, “Hey, click this box on the screen that we’re both looking at while we’re chatting. You’ve just given us permission. We will chase down your transcripts for you, and we will pay your $10. We’re going to make that seamless.”
So we were able to compress the amount of time. We were to get those transfer credits in front of us. And then, we got really good at very quick turnaround times on transfer credit evaluations. And we took that one kludgy administrative process that gets in the way of students, and we took that out of the equation for them.
And here’s the thing that surprises traditional academics, sometimes enrolling a student comes down to something as little as that. I’ve had people say, “Well, wait a minute, how serious a student can this be if they can’t even figure out how to get their transcripts?” And it’s like, “They’ve got busy lives. You have no idea.”
These are students who are knocked off track with simply, again, a car repair. That can be the difference between staying in and dropping out. So we have to build whole systems that try to allow them the space and time to simply stay focused on their academics. We often say take your classes. That’s kind of our mantra.

Jeff Amerine:
Yeah, I have to tell you that. I was just sitting here listening to you to describe all that. And my bachelor’s degree was at the Naval Academy, so I’m kind of prototypical in some ways, and I spent six years in the Air Force after that. And I actually didn’t complete my master’s program until I was 50 years old, but I attended at various different times six different universities, probably had, I don’t even know how many ridiculous number of credit hours, most of which didn’t transfer.
But I finally finished when there was access to a program that would allow me to live the busy life that I had at that point, which was being an entrepreneur, being full-time employed, and it was asynchronously taught. Otherwise, I probably would never have finished it because I had to make a value judgment about how much is this going to add versus the minimal amount of time that I had to spend on it?
So that really resonates with me. I think it makes all the difference. And I’ll tell you frankly, when I had to take the GMAT again when I was in my late 40s or nearly 50 years old, that was quite a humbling experience as well just to get back in the frame of mind that I’m going to take a standardized test to be able to do something that I know I can do. But yet, I’m back in this mode feeling like I’m 18 taking the SAT or the ACT again.
So another good example, we don’t require the GMAT for our business master’s programs. Because it’s way less important to us that you can pass a standardized test or do well on that than how well you do on the way out the door. In other words, we’re built, we’re open admissions with a wide embrace of our students.
And there are tons of reasons why people will struggle with the GMAT. It doesn’t mean they can’t thrive in the program, but it’s got to be a program that’s built well for them.

Jeff Standridge:
Let’s talk about how you’ve built processes to scale from 2,800 to 170,000. Because that had to be a daunting task to make sure that you could ensure the quality throughput of that kind of volume, talk a little bit about that for us.

Paul LeBlanc:
Well, we had the very best learning possible, which is we screwed it up badly. So I find that so much of our best learning comes when we get it wrong. But I have a good friend from Arkansas who once said to me, “There’s no education second kick of the mule.” So you don’t want to do it twice, but there’s often a lot of education the first time the mule kicks you.
So in 2012, at that time, Babson University did a list. They had a sort of annual list of the 50 largest not-for-profit providers of online degrees, and we were number 50 in 2012. We had grown, but we were still quite small compared to 49 others on the list. Just three years later, we were number four on the list. That was meteoric growth, and we broke everything. We broke HR. We broke payroll. We broke financial aid. We broke systems. I mean, it was just crazy. We were hiring 40 new full-time people every Monday just to keep up.

Jeff Standridge:
Wow.

Paul LeBlanc:
And it was a disaster. Now, I like to think I’m pretty sure students didn’t suffer, but we were like a duck. We looked serene on the surface to students, but underneath, it was not pretty. So that example I gave you of paying for the transcripts, we literally had a guy, Chris, who would go to the post office and write checks and with cash get money orders so we could send them to registrar’s offices manually, piles of them. I was thinking, Oh My God. That’s all, of course, automated now through electronic clearinghouses, et cetera.
So the first thing was we sort of learned the hard way. And then, secondly, we started to always think about scale as we were building. So that even though scale might be some time removed, might be some time away, our modeling might say, “It’s going to be a while before we’ll need X,” wherever we could, we tried to build an anticipation of that.
So it’s something as simple as, “Hey, our model tells us that we’re going to enroll an additional 10,000 students. We know we have to hire X number of advisors.” It was all ratio-driven. “We know it takes a long time to train an advisor. Let’s lean forward on our staffing, and let’s add a 20% increase on that in case we have catastrophic success.” And because we were growing, we knew we’d eventually need them. So if we spent a little bit of extra money before we needed to, that was okay because we knew they would eventually be ready to go.
There’s a book called Scarcity by a Princeton social behaviorist that talks about how we often now run organizations so lean that we don’t build in the buffer of scarcity, or we don’t build and buffer up extra capacity, I should say, so it’s the opposite. And yet, we almost always use up all the capacity and we sub-optimize. So, anyway, digression. That was an important piece.
The second was not only what can you do proactively, but what can you try not to do? And one of the things, again, scar tissue, we learned the hard way is there are times when you’re scaling when you say, “Hey, this is good enough.”
Everyone loves to talk about MVP, minimum viable product. But the reality is you can make a mistake and bake in a land mine that isn’t a land mine when you’re at 1,000 students, but is an absolute danger when you’re at 5,000. We can work around this right now, we’ll get to it later. Boy, if you have too many of those, it’s like planting hurdles for your future. And I think we got to get better at being mindful of those things as well.

Jeff Standridge:
So you mentioned Clay Christensen-

Paul LeBlanc:
Beware manual processes, right?

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, yeah.

Paul LeBlanc:
Beware the manual process because one day you’ll look up and say, “We forgot we were doing this manually, and now we have 30 people manually doing something we could have built and spent some money on the front end.”

Jeff Standridge:
Thirty hamster wheels running in the background.

Paul LeBlanc:
Yep.

Jeff Standridge:
You mentioned Clayton Christensen a few moments ago, and he’s obviously very influential in the higher ed world with his book, The Innovative University, but then also just in the business and innovation world with The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Innovator’s DNA, The Innovator’s Solution, and a variety of others. He predicted, and I did some writing, on leadership and innovation as inseparable relative to the higher ed world.
And I used his example of this cliff that’s coming of 18-year-olds in 2026. And he actually predicted pre-COVID that in a few years, a decade to 15 years, something like that, that 50% of all higher education institutions would cease to exist in their current form, kind of in the way they exist.
I think that’s a warning sign or a warning bell, ringing the bell, if you will, to traditional higher education institutions who are critical to the economic development of states like Arkansas, for instance.

Paul LeBlanc:
Sure.

Jeff Standridge:
What would you say to those traditional academic leaders who kind of subscribe to the belief that education at a four-year level is not about workforce development? It’s not about preparing people for the workforce. They still need to be removed from the influence of business and industry and government. And what would you say in that regard?

Paul LeBlanc:
I mean, that’s a classic jobs-to-be-done quandary, right?

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, yeah.

Paul LeBlanc:
Which is what they’re saying essentially is we don’t want to do the job that people are paying us to do. Look it, we ask higher education to do many jobs, and we need to honor and respect those because they are important. But at any given time, I would argue higher education typically has a primary job. And the primary job for American higher ed right now is to solve for massive changes in workforce.
It’s not just the fact that more and more people need post-secondary credentials. It’s what kind of credentials, what is the future of work, the coming… Not coming, it’s happening now. I think there will be massive displacement of work through automation and AI, the aging of the American workforce, and on and on and on.
So this is the most important question in front of higher education right now. And traditionalists, of course, don’t love that because it requires them, in their minds at least, to surrender things that they also hold dear, and I think are important, like we do need to train people for specific jobs and sectors.
But as IBM would say, “We have to have T-shaped employees.” They have to be able to be deep in a place that makes them in demand right out of the gate. But they also have to have that wide bar across the top of the T because what we know is that skills will time out now faster than ever, three to five years according to some research. So even if you don’t change your job, your job will change out from under you.
What does that mean? It means that you are going to dip in and out of a learning ecosystem for the whole of your life. We will always be retooling. And that retooling may be two hours, “Hey, I’m a programmer. Python has a new subroutine. I need to figure it out. I need two hours of deep dive on that subroutine.” It could be two days. It could be two weeks, two months, two years. And we have to build a learning ecosystem that has the flexibility, that greater granularity of credentials, and to understand that our learners are going to come in and out.
I think we also, as we do that, have to integrate, and it’s probably integration as opposed to the kind of course-based segregation of what some people call soft skills. Ironically, those are the hardest skills. But those are the ones, those are the wide bar of the T, so we have to do both. And I think there are a set of old binaries that are now going to fall away. So it used to be knowledge or skills. It’s both, right?

Jeff Standridge:
Yes.

Paul LeBlanc:
It used to be a degree or something that wasn’t college, like, nope, it’s going to be a degree and micro-credentials. They both will be important. And I do think the old 4 and 40 model, which is an industrial age notion of four years of university, 40 years of career, probably in the same place, that’s hopelessly gone. We’re done.
So Clay was a dear friend. He and I would debate this particular prediction because I think one of the things Clay was less appreciative about is that in regulated industries, like higher ed or healthcare, change, and disruptive innovation comes slower because the third-party payer, i.e. the federal government or the insurance company, really squelches or slows innovation. And also, colleges are really, really hard to kill.
But what happens is that they keep going along kind of like a zombie. They’re not really great places at some point. They don’t have the resources. They’ve compromised too much. Their buildings are falling apart. Classes are overcrowded. It’s all of that kind of… And they will go for a long time and they can flail for quite a long time. And they’ll fire a president and bring in another president who lasts a year or two years.
But we are going through monumental change, and that was true before the pandemic. It’s accelerated, and what’s interesting now is that it’s also less clear. We are in murkier territory. The world looks different, and we don’t entirely know how. We’re still figuring that out. We’re still coming out of the pandemic. Student behaviors are different. Every institution I know that deals with our student profile is seeing real challenges in persistence. Behaviors are changing.
And then, our own work and staff behaviors are changing. We have 13,000 employees, 60% of them say that they won’t come back to the workplace. So I’m in this big complex, and we are saying today, “We probably don’t need 50% of it.” How we work is changing. And all of that, I would be careful of anyone who thinks they know what’s going on right now, right?

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah.

Paul LeBlanc:
One of you guys wrote this great piece on leadership and innovation. And I loved something that was said in there, which is you need clarity. So clarity for us is our mission, who we serve, and the job we’re being asked to do, but you don’t want certainty right now. Because if you think you know how to do that job as well as it needs to be done, I would be very suspect.

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Paul LeBlanc:
And Institute for the Future in Palo Alto often talks about this. Clarity, you want clarity about your destination, but you want a lot of flexibility about how you get there. And right now, I think we are like cartographers mapping out a new route to the place we want to get.

Jeff Standridge:
That’s a great point. That ties into our practice when we work with companies and institutions to build strategic growth plans. We say you probably don’t need to go more than about three years out because we don’t know what’s going to happen beyond in terms of establishing that vision or the destination that you want to arrive at. And let’s go ahead and build out the actions or what we call the long-term targets to get there. But then, let’s identify what we need to do in the next 12 months to get as far down that path as possible.
And then, let’s step back and reassess. Is our vision still appropriate for where we’re trying to go? Are the long-term targets still validated or have some become invalidated? Has something happened that wasn’t anticipated 12 months ago when we first built out that strategic growth plan or that vision, like a pandemic?
The pandemic rendered lots of strategic plans relatively useless.

Paul LeBlanc:
Absolutely. Our land war in Europe.

Jeff Standridge:
Absolutely.

Paul LeBlanc:
Skyrocketing oil and energy prices. And you just know it comes out of the blue. Yeah, I really question now the usefulness of the multi-year strategic plan, actually. I think having strategic commitments, like those destinations, that destination you want to get to, that vision, your clarity around your mission. But I think planning now has to be on a rolling basis.

Jeff Standridge:
Agreed.

Paul LeBlanc:
And I wouldn’t quarrel with your three-year horizon, but we’ve talked a lot about how we need to be on an almost an ongoing annual roll forward strategic plan that continues to put out there the vision of where we’re trying to get, but understands that, boy, that road, there might be lots of detours and diversions and pivots and the unknown.

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, I think we’re completely aligned there.

Jeff Amerine:
It’s important, strategic agility, strategic agility versus sort of a set strategy in that you’re constantly reassessing, are we on the right track, and does it still make sense? And it’s characteristic of, if you look at large publicly-traded organizations, their half-life as publicly-traded organizations is at an all-time low.
And I think there’s also a fundamental lack of understanding in many large organizations that the pace of innovation and change is so great that it eliminates or makes obsolescent a lot of your thinking faster than ever before. And so, strategic agility may be the better way to think about it, constant reassessment.

Paul LeBlanc:
No, I love that observation, Jeff. And I would say that when people ask us, “What are you working on now? What’s the innovative thing that you’re spending time thinking about?” Actually, for us, it’s on this question of culture and how do we move from an expert culture, which is what most higher ed and healthcare, they’re both expert cultures. Status accrues to the smartest person who knows the most.
But the problem with expert cultures is they’re really, really bad at saying, “I don’t know.” They’re really bad at the learner’s mindset. It’s ironic. But if you think about higher education, it’s very hierarchal. It’s very siloed. It’s calcified.
And we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how do we become a better learning organization that harnesses the creativity and smarts of our people at every level and move away from a kind of command and control, top-down leadership that three and four years ago would be, I’d like to think at least, a lot of trust in, “What does Paul think we should do?”
I was like, wow, if they keep hearing that question, what do you think we should do about this? What that tells me is that I’m failing my organization because I need people who are coming in and saying, “I think this is what we should do.” I need people who have that sort of leadership courage, but also the creativity and smarts.
And if they’re coming in without having talked to everybody else… So I’ll give you two quick examples of how we’re trying to operate differently. Now, when people come into a leadership meeting with a proposal, we often ask them to bring the person who is in most vehement disagreement with them.

Jeff Standridge:
Love that.

Paul LeBlanc:
It forces a different conversation. And then a second is we have been practicing the use of communities of practice as a different kind of tool. And after George Floyd’s murder, we created a five million social justice fund with three areas of focus. One was the immediate needs of our students of color. And then, the next two are sort of broader and longer-term, which is what does it mean to be a person of color and an employee of SNHU? What does it mean to be a student of color at SNHU? And how could we invest in all three of those? So immediate, then two longer-term investments.
In the old SNHU, and we still revert to this sometimes, far too often, but in our old manner of leading, I would’ve pulled together my team. I would’ve brought in our diversity team and the chief diversity officer. We might have brought in a consultant. And we would’ve said, “How do we want to spend this five million on these three questions?”
And we would’ve come up with some really good thinking, I suspect. And I would’ve sent out a memo describing this to the institution, and everyone would’ve applauded it. They’d say, “I love this place.” It’s putting its money where its mouth… Our culture would applaud that.
But what we did instead this time was we formed three communities of practice, each 20 people large. We trained the facilitators to be really good at working in that mode. And then we said, “Anyone who wants to work on any one of these questions, please put your hand up. Doesn’t matter where you sit in the organization. Doesn’t matter what your title is. You could be the receptionist or you could be a senior VP.”
But the way you would get chosen is based on two things, credibility, everybody knows that you thought about this work. It doesn’t matter where you sit like, “Oh, no, no, Cindy, the receptionist, she adopted two kids of color. She’s really been thinking about… ” whatever it is, however, they knew that. Credibility and then passion, that it’s one thing to know it, but do you also put the time in?
And we’ve got this mishmash of groups that have no representation in the org chart. And then, they told me and the management team how we should spend the five million. It’s a very different way to do the work. And the advantage was that they know more than my team does. So they’re closer to the work. They have credibility. Remember, they’ve been doing the work. Remember, they have to have passion. So we were able to really corral and get better thinking.
And the institution also owned the work differently. So it wasn’t, “Aren’t the bosses great? They made this thing.” “Good for you. Let me get back to what I’m doing,” to, “Look what we’re doing. Look what my colleagues are talking about,” because of representation across the units. So it’s very, very powerful.
I think in a world, to use a military term that’s now become popular, VUCA world, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, in a VUCA world, if you aren’t a learning organization, if you have rigid silos and hierarchies, you are in real risk because brittle breaks quick. Rigid equals brittle, and brittle breaks quick.
But if you are a learning organization, I think you’re just going to be able to respond to opportunities and threats much faster and more effectively. And in that way, you can actually thrive in a VUCA world. You can seize the opportunities. You can fend off the threats. That’s what we’re trying to build.
And I think if we’re successful, and boy, there are some days I want to just knock my head against the wall because we’re reverting back, and there are other days where I think, “Yeah, this is it. Look what’s happening here.” But when we get it right, I think it gives us such a distinct strategic advantage. I think we move faster and make better decisions.

Jeff Standridge:
Fantastic. I could engage in this conversation all day long and probably even beyond. But I know our listeners may not have the same capacity that I do, so it’s fantastic just the perspectives you’re sharing. Let’s talk a little bit about your book, Students First: Access, Equity, and Opportunity in Higher Education.

Paul LeBlanc:
Sure. So had the pandemic, I wasn’t traveling as much. I had no social life as we were all hunkered down. And I started thinking about what are the…. So the book is really about system change, how do we rethink systems?
And it really is based on Amy Laitinen’s incisive critique of the credit hour. It kind of takes that as a springboard and says, “What happens when you build a whole system, i.e. post-secondary education, on the flawed foundation of the credit hour, which is good at telling us how long someone sat, but not very good at telling us what they’ve learned or what they can actually do with what they’ve learned?
So it is in many ways an argument for restructuring higher education on the basis of competencies or competency-based education, which I think can unleash then that… So as soon as you do that, what you’ve said is, “Look at, we’re not so interested in the inputs any longer. We don’t care how many faculty members have PhDs. We don’t care that what students taking the GMAT. We don’t care about the high school GPAs of your students. We don’t care about your campus and your buildings or your facilities or your use of technology. Because what we care about is the fact that your students can do what you claim they’ll be able to do when they graduate.”
My hope, my belief is that if we can move away from inputs to outputs, then that has two fundamental questions. And they sound simple, but they get very complex when you start to unpack them. The questions are, what claims do you make for your students’ learning? Doesn’t matter what your major is. It’s not about vocational versus humanities. What can your students do with what they know? And the second question is how do you know that? So it’s an assessment question, an assessment is super hard.
So the book is really about how we move to competencies, how we rethink assessment, how we can then start thinking about rethinking financial aid, but based on competencies and performance versus time and really makes an argument for reforming the system. Because the current system is not only inefficient, it also fails us in numerous ways, but it’s deeply inequitable.
Jeff, you mentioned transfer and credits. Right now, if a student finishes at a community college with an associate’s degree and transfers to a four-year school, on average, they lose 43% of their credits. Who goes to community colleges? Mostly low income and correlations to students of color, deep inequity. It’s an inefficient system that’s built for the privileged, that is the four-year schools and the students who enroll in them from freshman year, and really does inequitable things to students. So the book is full of those sorts of observations about the inequities that are built-in.

Jeff Amerine:
Let me ask you, what’s your level of optimism that the people in charge of the measurement and the rankings and the accreditation bodies are going to catch up with your thinking? Because one of the things that always seems like a huge resistance to change to me is we could do all that stuff, but such and such accrediting body is not going to agree with it, so we won’t. How do we move them along the same path?

Paul LeBlanc:
Yeah. So it’s actually, I think, almost more difficult to get at the federal financial aid system. So as you guys know so well, if you really want to understand someone’s values, look where they spend their money. If you really want to understand what an organization cares about, follow the money. And in like fashion, in regulated industries, it’s how the money gets regulated.
So $156 billion of federal financial aid is paid out every year on the basis of the credit hour. Until you can unpack that and get that, we will always be stuck with this artifact. So there’s a chapter in the book that argues for a demonstration project. In other words, Congress can legislate an alternative to the credit hour basis. And I sort of describe it’s the wonkiest boring chapter. There’s no sex nor violence in it. It’s all about financial aid. But it does argue for a demonstration project.
Because demonstration projects change the industry. People forget that it was a demonstration project back in the ’90s, on the 50% rule. There was a rule that said 50% of your degree experience had to happen in a physical location. And a demonstration project, passed by Congress at the time, waived that cap, and it was the first time you could have fully virtual degrees. And all of a sudden, online education exploded, and look where we are today.
So in similar fashion, I argue for a non-time-based financial aid program done in a demonstration project approved by Congress. And I think it could actually open up and break through the impediment, which is the federal financial aid system. I think accreditors will get there more quickly, and I do think we are going to increasingly see what some people have called the accreditor of choice, which is the impact of employers.
So people have sometimes described employers will be the new accreditors of the future. I don’t think accreditors are going to go away, but I do think that employers’ willingness to hire people, not based on where they went or a whole bunch of inputs, but demonstrable ability to do the job and possess the skills that we need in a job right now, that’s really powerful, that’s happening, particularly with the workforce crisis underway. So I think the time is right.
And then the other thing I would observe is that CBE has gone through kind of the Gartner curve. So when we announced our programs and CBEN, which is the Competency Based Education Network, was formed, there was this sort of exuberance. It’s going to change the world. And then, of course, it didn’t right. And then you go through what Gartner calls a slough of despair, “Oh, that was a terrible idea. See, it was over-hyped. It’s going to go away. It was a fad. Let’s move on.”
But then what Gartner describes, and we saw this with MOOCs. MOOCs are going to change the world. MOOCs are a failure. But take a look, edX was sold for $850 million. Coursera was a major player in the education landscape. Do they look different? For sure, because that’s what happens with innovation.
I think where we are now is CBE is quietly building across the industry. And when I was at the CBEN conference in the fall talking about my book, there were 350 people there. There were 200 of them were from new institutions who are just now working on new CBE programs. That’s pretty remarkable.
That means you’ve got all of this quiet growth of programs proliferating across the industry. The accreditors will catch up. Until federal financial aid catches up, we will continue to see slower growth in that movement. But I am generally speaking optimistic.

Jeff Standridge:
That’s fantastic. We’re talking with Dr. Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University. Dr. LeBlanc, it has been an honor and a pleasure to talk with you. I think we are so fortunate in the United States to have you leading Southern New Hampshire University and really establishing yourself as a benchmark for where we should be going in the industry.

Paul LeBlanc:
Well, thank you. That’s very kind. There’s lots and lots and lots of good people at lots of places doing this work. So you’re kind to say it, but I think we’re at a really good place in our industry. In some ways, kind of my good days, I think we almost have to be this broken in order to really fix it. Sometimes you need to be pretty broken in order to move on. That’s true in individuals’ lives sometimes. That’s a hard thing to do. We’re in a hard place right now as an industry, but I’m pretty optimistic about what’s to come.

Jeff Standridge:
Very good.

Paul LeBlanc:
Thank you for having me.

Jeff Standridge:
Thank you for being with us. You can find links to Dr. LeBlanc’s book, Students First: Access, Equity, and Opportunity in Higher Education in the show notes. You can also find the link innovationjunkie.com/highered to reference the article Innovation and Leadership are Inseparable.
Thank you for being with us. Great episode. And we look forward to maybe talking to you again in the future.

Paul LeBlanc:
My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, guys.

Jeff Amerine:
Yeah, thanks so much.

Paul LeBlanc:
Take care.

Jeff Standridge:
This has been another episode of The Innovation Junkies podcast. Thanks so much.

Jeff Amerine:
Hey, folks, this is Jeff Amerine. We want to thank you for tuning in. We sincerely appreciate your time. If you’re enjoying The Innovation Junkies podcast, please do us a huge favor. Click the subscribe button right now. Please leave us a review. It would mean the world to both of us. And don’t forget to share us on social media.

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